Particulate arising from study

Category: Archival Fragments

Clocks for Deep Time

The Long Now Foundation, founded by Whole Earth Catalog editor and technoculture entrepreneur Stewart Brand, seems on its face to be a working example of Jussi Parikka’s call to conceiving of time and space more deeply. Among its archival projects and TED-Talk like seminars, the foundation has conceived of a few strategies for how to conceptualize a future that extends for 10,000 years rather than merely that of the human lifespan or a market cycle. While many of its endeavors fall blatantly short of that goal, the organization’s central public face is that of a clock, to be built inside a mountain in the Nevada desert, which will (it is supposed) endure for ten millennia producing occasional and ever-changing music.

There’s something conceptually beautiful about the idea, even though I have difficulty imagining it as anything but a eulogy for the sixth mass extinction event or an apology to whatever form of life might emerge in that timescale to apprehend it. Perhaps its something about the remoteness of the desert that primes the mind to think of dirges, or it’s the fact that the clock is designed to run with the assistance of its human visitors, or without them. More fundamentally, it might be rigidity at which the clock is set to mark time that disturbs me, the holding of the second and the hour firmly in hand far in advance of what might well be the end of these concepts’ utility. The clock thus seems to embody an optimism for the conditions of the present that implicitly limits the imagination. Deep time isn’t clock time, at least not in the sense of the steadily ticking second hand.

I wonder if a different clock, the doomsday clock that came out of the nuclear crises of the Cold War, might provide the better tool with which to think and act. Maintained since 1947 by a consortium of scientists, the clock advances and retreats relative to midnight. Time here is plastic and responsive, equally full of a vast past and a dire present. This equation seems to me to balance the tension between the unthinkable scales of human history and the decisive capacities of present action. Perhaps we need a deep time with a deadline.

See the SSEC In Action

I was delighted to finally get my hands on the 1952 film Walk East on Beacon, a noir of questionable merit that has the distinction of featuring the SSEC in a minute-long cameo. Uploaded here is the scene in question, in which the patriotic scientist makes a breakthrough of great import (only later to be extorted by wholly unconvincing Soviet sleeper agents).

Of great interest to me is the speed of the flashing lights on what appears to be the SSEC’s sequence relays. How could this visual information be meaningfully interpreted by the human eye? Could its engineers pick up even the grossest pattern in its whirling activity? Why, moreover, did the designers include and so neatly order the lights? Was this intended to serve any purpose other than mystification?

The IBM Symphony

I thought you might enjoy Vittorio Giannini’s IBM Symphony, comissioned for the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The event and IBM’s president were jointly committed to the idea of world peace and prosperity through free trade, and the symphony was one of many spectacles dedicated to this theme.

Listen as the tumultuous passages of the initial movement gives way to a rousing, if not entirely artistically meritorious, blend of national anthems and company song. Ever onward IBM!

Inside an Electronic Brain


“In appearance, a digital calculator–SECC, for instance– is a large chamber or more whose sides are glass enclosed panels of electronic tubes. When SSEC is at work, the panels blink furiously with a click-clacking sound, a galaxy of noisy glass stars in a glass sky. Standing in this chamber with the IBM motto, THINK, emblazoned over the doorway, visitors sometimes remark that they feel not like a man with a brain inside him, but like a brain with a man inside it.”

– John Kobler, “You’re Not Very Smart at All,” Saturday Evening Post , vol. 222 no. 34 (Februrary 18 1950): 111.

From Your Valentine, the SSEC

curiouser and curiouser

Popular sources, including Columbia who were so intimately involved with the history of the device, identify the SSEC as the titanic computer in the February 11th 1961 New Yorker cover. I’m not so sure; by this time the SSEC had been long decomissioned to make way for faster IBM machines in the company showroom. The proportunes of the calculator, its colour scheme, and the architecture of the interior, moreover, are off. If there’s anything SSEC-ish about the image, it’s the visual vocabulary-cum-hyperbole that the device seemed to set into motion for cartoonists and set designers across the country.

Behemouth towers of tapes, blinking lights, and reels filled the popular imagination of the American 1950s and 60s, and the SSEC was arguably a primary source for this aesthetic. In addition to the sleek photographs that followed it successful media debut, IBM consented to cameo the computer in the 1952 noir film Walk East on Beacon!, a cold war spy-thriller that I’m very much looking forward to watching. A further appearence of a sort can be found in Desk Set, a Katherine Hepburn rom com from 1954 that reportedly used the SSEC as a model from which to design the film’s major plot device, the EMERAC: a corporate computer set to productivize a broadcast company and antagonize all its employees in the process.

It’s curious, then, that the New Yorker selected such an intimate moment to display between the giant, futuristic machine and its aged worker (the rest of the office presumably made redundant in its wake?). Young women were far more germane to the promotional imagery of the computer, moreover, such as Betsy Stewart’s deft handling of the SSEC in secretary-like fashion during its public debut.


The New Yorker cover, conversely, seems to take us into the future of this image. The computer secretary, now wizened with age, receives a token of affection back from the machine that she has attended to for so long. In contrast to the vivid anxieties at play at the time concerning the thinking power and autonomy of the emerging technology, one in which through sheer rationality and super-human speed electronic calculators would come to subordinate their keepers, the valentine shows a rather different capacity for thoughtfulness. The warmth of the woman’s desk lamp and smile do much to humanize the electronic brain. IBM, however, would not begin to realize the importance of such gestures until later in the decade.

The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 2

ssec- columns edited out

The IBM Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator

IBM probably built the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) in part due to revenge. Their lack of control over the public relations generated by the ASCC soured T. J. Watson to Harvard, and soon after the debacle he ordered that a better, more electric calculator to be built within a year. The resulting machine, fusing experiments with vacuum tube and mechanical relays, made its debut in 1948 under tightly controlled conditions.

The SSEC was housed next to the IBM headquarters in New York, taking over a building that had formally housed a shoe store. The renovated show room, visible from the street, was designed to cultivate the curiosity of chance spectators, who were wholly welcome to enter and engage with the behemoth through a ever-present tour guide. The press, moreover, was given no room for chance reaction. A carefully crafted press-release, pamphlet, and news conference supplied the papers with the correct superlative quotes and figures to frame the machine and the company.

Strangely enough, IBM seemed to cultivate the brain metaphor in this coverage, acting antithetical to the non-corporate actors of the early American computers. The IBM tour guide, while giving caveats as to the limits of the machine’s cognitive autonomy, nevertheless referred to it as a brain and would walk individuals through its surprisingly human-like thought process while they circled the room.

Like the ACSS, the SSEC’s aesthetics served to reinforce the futurity and otherworldlyness of the science-fictional calculator. Extraneously streamlined peripherals and corners graced the exterior of the device, giving its a future-modern appearance, while much of its machinery remained hidden unseen behind the quasi-nave of the device’s U-shaped architecture. Conversely, the SSEC’s colourful lights and knobs, dancing in quadrants behind its lengthy glass panels, might suggest the stained glass windows of a Gothic cathedral. The computer was designed to simultaneously be seen without being fully present to understanding; a raised floor concealed the wiring between different components, while the moving patterns of tape and switches provided clear auditory and visual signs of life, if not in a meaning.

Perhaps the most evocative aspect of the calculator was the set of problems selected to debut the machine, both as a test of its capacities and as a key component of the image it would present in the news cycle of its release. In a highly poetic vein, the SECC set about determining the exact position of the moon, every six hours, 100 years in the past and 100 years in the present. This cosmic beginning, out-doing the scope of a human lifetime in its span and exceeding the globe in its reach, further enmeshed the computer in a strange untimelyness. Beneath the incomprehensible flight of lights and paper tape, the public was told, lay the movements of celestial bodies. Yet this too concealed much: after the lunar cycles came simulations of the hydrogen-bomb. Added to the mystique and menace of the computer, then, we can add the role of mediator over mass death, oblivion made available with devestating scale and ease. As a super brain, and the gateway to the incomprehensible terror of the atomic age, the computer was indeed a Gothic space to bottle anxiety and ambition in equal measure.

The Aesthetics of Early Computing- Object 1

This computer's aesthetics are fascist (spoilers)

The IBM Automatic Sequence Controlled Calculator (aka Harvard Mark I)

The ASCC’s debut in 1945 was something of an event. Norman Bel Geddes, a theatrical and industrial designer made famous by his 1939 Futurama exhibition at the New York World’s Fair, oversaw the design (or at least his company did). What was, in IBM’s lab, a heap of re-purposed machines and cables, became under Geddes’ hand a visually striking cabinet with streamlined corners, luminous surfaces, and an imposing presence once installed at Harvard. The design specifications even extended to the room itself, including special lighting and a reflective tile floors.

These early aesthetic choices achieved several ends. It ensured that IBM, who footed the bill for the device, presented an appealingly modern object before the flashbulbs of the newspaper reporters (that IBM failed to gain much mention in these headlines, however, is another story altogether). The glass enclosure, moreover, helped damped the acoustic racket of the calculator’s electro-mechanical switches, which achieved their binary computation through physically toggling on and off in a great feat of coordinating clattering. In the process, however, access to the machine was greatly restricted to both its operators and public. Thirdly, the connotative power of the design’s sleek surface and tapered corners endowed the device with a powerful sense of futurity. The visually apparent complexity, cloaked in temporal ornament, seemed startlingly out of place in 1940s Harvard, if not also out of time.

The press conference at its unveiling, orchestrated by Harvard rather than IBM, helped instantiate the electronic calculator as a science fictional object. As with the prior publicity afforded to the ENIAC, newspapers expressed a nervous excitement in the face of the “electronic superbrain” of the new, seemingly cognitive, machine. Its autonomy was scrutinized in equal measure as its speed and applications were celebrated. Despite the repeated corrections of scientists and engineers, the brain proved to be an enduring metaphor to describe the early computers of the 1940-1960s. In this way, the computer entered into discourse as a worryingly powerful individual, haunted by the Gothic sense of something animate lurking behind the implacable glass exterior that both revealed and concealed the mechanisms within.

This term I seek to understand how these associations may have been conditioned by the aesthetic choices and media spectacle of IBM’s early computers. How was futurity gathered in these objects, and to what end?


Touch Your Data  


  From Jaron Lanier. Part of a forthcoming paper on embodiment and VR interfaces in the 90s.

Male Nude Seen from Behind, Arm Raised Over Head

John Singer Sargent Male Nude Seen from Behind, Arm Raised Over Head, c. 1890 – 1915 Charcoal on off-white laid paper 24 5/16 x 19 in Harvard Art Museums/Fogg Museum, Gift of Mrs. Francis Ormond, 1937.9.24